Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Recently, a 36-year-old man was buried alive in Florida when a sinkhole devoured his house while he was asleep in bed. I keep agonizing about why God, in his omniscience, didn't send this poor soul to the bathroom minutes before this tragic incident. Just think how we might have marveled at this divine intervention. Any thoughts?
-- Anonymous, West Palm Beach, Fla.
Your concerns about a terrible tragedy rest on the nature of miracles. Many people, particularly atheists, write to me with the same issues. If God can do anything, why doesn't God save us all from unexpected life-threatening situations and illnesses? There are good reasons why God occasionally allows us to be victimized by what Bob Dylan called "a simple twist of fate." If all people were saved or healed at all times, then death would have no dominion over us and we'd all live long, comfortable and untroubled lives. The overcrowding caused by canceling death is just the first problem such total divine intervention would cause.
A bigger problem with expecting God to always save us is that this is a sure recipe for human passivity and indolence. Instead of trying on our own to cure diseases and reduce life-threatening dangers, we'd just sit and wait for God to save us. Such abandonment of our intellect is surely not what a good God intends for us.
God never promised to save us from all the dangers of life. God does promise to comfort us after tragedy and to receive our souls after death. These are enormous and deeply comforting promises, but they don't seem to be enough for everyone.
An old joke: A grandmother is sitting on the beach with her little grandson, who is suddenly washed away by a wave. She screams a prayer to God, "Save my grandson!" Then a new wave washes ashore, deposits the child back on the beach and he continues to play in the sand. The grandmother looks up to God and says, "He had a hat!"
I have no idea, as I've often said, where the idea came from that God should be our personal guarantor against all the dangers of life on planet Earth. It's not in the Bible and it's not the teaching of any religion I've studied. In fact, Buddhism is entirely devoted to the management of suffering, not the elimination of it.
The 23rd Psalm is about having a partner as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death so we won't be frozen by fear. It's not about making every day a picnic in the green pastures of life. We often become irritated with God for the violation of promises never made, and this leads to its own form of suffering.
I'm not at all sure you're correct that if God had sent that man to the bathroom, or out to 7-Eleven for a cup of coffee, before his house was swallowed up by the sinkhole that he would have seen his good fortune as a miracle. People can just as easily see miracles, if and when they do occur, as merely good luck. There's no way to pin down the difference between a miracle and a coincidence.
Here are two stories: The first is the legend that during the crossing of the Red Sea, recounted in the Bible, many people didn't see the miracle at all. The moral that ends the story is: "They never saw the miracle of the splitting of the sea because they never looked up, so all they saw was mud." The second is about a man who nearly died while lost in a blizzard. Later, in a bar, he told the story to the man sitting next to him. "I was about to freeze to death and I prayed to God to save me," he recalled. His companion asked, "What happened then?" The man who was saved responded, "God didn't do a thing for me, and if that Eskimo hadn't come along and found me at the last minute, I'd be dead."
Miracles do happen to us all the time, but not every time. That's the way God has arranged things. Why miracles occur (if they do) and why they don't (if they don't) is a mystery we must live with within the limitations of our understanding about God and God's ways.
I believe in miracles, but I don't depend upon them. It's the only way I know to live with hope and caution.